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Stephen Greenhalgh was the Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime and has also served as Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

This week we heard that the three water cannon bought by Boris Johnson in 2014 were sold for scrap, raising a paltry £11,000 for the Mayor’s 72 youth projects to tackle the root causes of violent crime. Mayor Sadiq Khan wasted no time in lambasting Boris Johnson for an “appalling botched deal” and for wasting taxpayers’ money on another vanity project. I want to set the record straight. Helpfully, the documentation relating to this Mayoral decision is still on the City Hall website.

Johnson’s decision to purchase the water cannon was to support the Commissioner’s desire to prevent disorder on the streets. Johnson agreed to support the call by the Metropolitan Police, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), and the College of Policing to purchase water cannon to help enhance their response to riots or other serious and exceptional public disorder. A briefing from Chief Constable Shaw sets out the operational requirement for water cannon as a national public order asset.

The deal to purchase the water cannon was a carefully planned interim solution rather than an “appalling botched deal”. The September 2013 letter from Assistant Commissioner, Mark Rowley, made clear that the Policing Minister, Damian Green, agreed that an interim solution could be considered which would look at the viability of hiring or purchasing second-hand water cannon as two years on from 2011 riots the police still did not have this tactic available to them. The letter also outlined that ACPO would seek funding for the purchase of three water cannon for deployment within the UK, as a national asset, but based within the Metropolitan Police area. The letter outlined that if the Home Office refused to fund, the Commissioner would probably approach me (as Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime) with a capital bid.

In his 6th January 2014 letter to Theresa May, then Home Secretary, Johnson set out that he would make funds in February available to the Met for purchasing the interim water cannon solution as a national asset subject to a public engagement process “for the most economical interim solution that allows the Commissioner to meet his desire to prevent disorder on the streets.” Boris also secured a commitment from the Commissioner that these water cannon would not be routinely deployed but would be “rarely seen and rarely used”.

The response from May on 23rd January gave absolutely no indication that the Home Secretary was minded not to grant a licence for the use of water cannon. In fact, she noted that both the Commissioner and Chief Constable David Shaw, national policing lead for conflict management, advised her “that there are circumstances in which water cannon – alongside other public order tactics – may be of use in the future.” The response goes on to state: “Like you, I am keen to ensure that forces have the tools and powers they need to maintain order on our streets.”

I think that it is fair to say that Johnson, as Mayor, was candid and upfront with May about his intentions and had no prior indication at all that she would refuse to licence the water cannon.

The interim solution to purchase these water cannon provided great value for money to the taxpayer. The cost of the latest models deployed in countries throughout Europe was around €900,000 each (€2.7million for three) back in 2013 as set out in Rowley’s letter. They are built to order with a lead-in time of around two years, including the procurement process. The decision to purchase the second-hand water cannon for £75,000 and refurbish them for a total of around £250,000 so that the police could fill the gap in their public order toolkit sooner represented exceptional value for money. The remaining costs relate to annual storage and maintenance. In contrast,  Khan’s decision to sell them for scrap represents the worst kind of gesture politics and is a botched deal if ever I saw one.

There continues to be broad public support in London for the use of water cannon in limited circumstances. Polling after the 2011 riots showed that the majority of the public were supportive of the police being able to use water cannon in the event of extreme violence and widespread destruction of property. Boris only approved the purchase after extensive consultation and a further survey. This was the largest and most detailed poll of Londoners ever undertaken on this issue and found that every ethnic group was favourable to the use of water cannon, as was every age group across all areas of the capital. Over two thirds of respondents (68 per cent) were supportive of the use of water cannon in limited circumstances. In addition, over half of the respondents (52 per cent) expressed that they would have greater confidence in the Met Police’s ability to respond to serious public disorder if water cannon were available. In fact, more than a third of Londoners thought that the police already had water cannon.

The use of water cannon does not represent a restriction of the right to protest. Water cannon are tools for responding to serious public disorder and are not for policing protests. Since the riots of 2011, the police have identified on a number of occasions that there is a gap in their current response to serious outbreaks of extreme or violent public disorder which, they think, water cannon would be a useful tool to fill. The strict criteria for use would only be in those situations where there is a significant risk of widespread destruction of property or the loss of life. Water cannon is neither a toy for the cops to bring out as a show of strength nor a tool to deploy at normal protest or public events. The Met polices over 1,500 public order events every year, with the vast majority passing off peacefully. However, if and when legitimate protest is hijacked and turns into violent disorder, the public rightly expect the police to have the necessary tools to restore order and safeguard life.

Water cannon are not about an escalation of force. They are civilian vehicles, rather than armoured military machines. They are less harmful than a metal baton at close range, far less dangerous then firing baton rounds, and more discriminating than horses charging into a crowd of people – all tactics that the police can lawfully use now.

The use of water cannon would not undermine confidence in the police. Clearly the improper use of police powers can undermine public confidence, but it is the absence of a proper police response that does the most damage. When the police lose the streets, they lose the confidence of the public. Londoners’ confidence in the Met plummeted by 11 points after the 2011 riots. And those who indulge in violence and wanton criminality – such as those who attacked Millbank Tower in 2010 – undermine the majority exercising their lawful right to peaceful protest.

Finally, we should contrast the Mayoral record of Johnson and Khan on policing and crime. Ensuring the public safety of Londoners is the first duty of the Mayor. Under Boris the murder rate fell by 50 per cent, knife crime dropped by a third and victim-based neighbourhood crime dropped by nearly 20%. We had to make tough choices in putting Bobbies before buildings so that we could keep police officer numbers at around 32,000. Today murder and violent crime in London is at a 10 year high and knife crime are at an all-time high with police officer numbers in London at a 20 year low. This Mayor prefers to waste the £250 million profit that we made on the sale of the old New Scotland Yard on buying the Empress State Building – an ageing 1960s tower block that the Met already occupied.

All this buck passing, virtue signalling, and gesture politics by Khan does nothing to keep London safe.

37 comments for: Stephen Greenhalgh: The truth about those water cannon

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